One of the men in our scripture reflection group remarked this week, “This will be a Christmas unlike any other.” Any other in our life time, perhaps, but on reflecting on the circumstances we are living today with the pandemic and the circumstances of that first Christmas 2000 years ago, I think this Christmas may be more like that first Christmas than we first imagine and can help us to appreciate God’s gift to us even more. It makes us understand on a deeper level God’s reason for becoming man – and specifically, entering into the world like a child – a vulnerable child. God makes himself vulnerable, weak, and helpless. Why would God do such a thing? Because we are vulnerable, weak, and helpless. To save us, Christ enters totally into our human condition. Salvation happens in a relationship of love when our hearts freely respond to God’s love. No relationship works if two people “have nothing in common”. God becomes man to bridge the totally otherness of God so that we can enter into a relationship with him. There is something about vulnerability also that moves us in a way that strength does not. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Making oneself vulnerable before another is a risk – a risk to be hurt, but it is also an invitation to be loved. A relationship is taken to a deeper level not when we tell the other how great we are but when we are willing to share our weaknesses, fears, and struggles. The relationship then is sealed when the vulnerability is met with mercy, compassion, and love. One of the ways we know love is real is when we find ourselves loving another and sacrificing for the good of another in a surprising way. Often, engaged couples will tell me that they knew they were called to marry each other when one of them got sick and the other cared for them or stuck with them through their illness or difficulty. The young man is often surprised by the sacrifices he is willing to make and how they don’t feel like a burden. The sign of grace – the sign of God’s presence and the call to communion – is when a heart is moved to show mercy and to embrace the other in his or her weakness. It is this experience that allows the couple to walk forward in hope because they know that a love greater than their own has entered the relationship. They are able to face the uncertain future without fear. The ability to be vulnerable makes the relationship real. If the person is not willing to be vulnerable to me, I might admire the person, respect the person, or even fear the person, but it would hardly be a relationship of love. A relationship of love cannot be built on fear – fear of loss or fear of disappointment. It is surprising that God becomes vulnerable, but not so when we know that God desires to be loved, not feared. He came out of love to invite us to love and for us to experience in the flesh this greater love. We can’t love an idea. We can’t wrap our arms around a concept. We need a human encounter to experience love, including the love of God. We need a human encounter to enter into a relationship with Him. For this reason our Savior comes as a baby at Christmas.
This divine dynamic expressed in the Christmas mystery hit me in a particular way through the witness of a friend. She and her husband, recent empty-nesters, due to unexpected circumstances, welcomed a daughter and her baby into their home. The presence of her baby grandson in her home changed the way she faced the circumstances of the pandemic. Precautions that would have seemed over the top or crazy before became totally reasonable with the presence of a vulnerable baby in the home. Not only reasonable, but do-able. I saw this woman, already sensitive and caring, become even more so because of the baby – willing to sacrifice freely her convenience and things she loved for the good of the baby. Her sacrifices and seriousness about the precautions were motivated not out of fear of a virus but out of love for the baby. One may do the exact same things, but what motivates us makes all the difference. Love builds us up and generates a lasting joy. A motivation based in fear can work for the short term but is not sustainable. Fear eventually stresses us out, wears us down, and leads to anxiety and despair. To love, we need the presence of another with us, and we need to be reminded of his presence in a concrete way to sustain that love. The presence of the baby has undoubtedly made her house “safer” but has also filled it with a greater love. My friend’s witness and her presence in my life has helped me to be more sensitive and compassionate toward the vulnerable persons in my life, starting with myself. Often we are not willing to see or to accept our own vulnerabilities until someone looks at us with love. Jesus, Our Savior, comes as a baby to teach us how to love and to see ourselves as we really are. The all-powerful God comes as a helpless baby to open our hearts to the vulnerable and to move our hearts with compassion. It is in loving in this way that we encounter God and find our salvation. Jesus continues to enter our lives today – to be present to us – in this mysterious, unexpected way.
One of the other striking aspects of all the Christmas Gospels is how physically, emotionally, or psychologically alone all of the figures are. Joseph and Mary are alone with the mysterious revelation that the child she is carrying has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Who could they tell? Who would believe them? Mary gives birth in a shepherd’s cave. They are alone – no family or friends to assist them. No room in the inn. The shepherds live by themselves on the outskirts of town. They are alone with their sheep in the dark night. But into each of these situations comes the divine word of comfort, “do not be afraid” and the invitation to behold that God is Emmanuel – that God is with us. The sign of his presence is an infant lying in a manger. Christ himself knows our loneliness and our isolation. He has entered into it fully. “He was in the world… but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11). This Christmas, we may be unable to gather as usual with our family and friends. We may be separated from those we love because of sickness or travel restrictions or out of precaution for the ones we love. But we are not alone. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). May we be open to the way Christ comes into our life the way Mary and Joseph received the child. They give us a witness of faith, hope, and love. The Savior always comes in a way we didn’t plan, but if we let him touch our hearts, no matter what our circumstances, we can always say, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, or “Buon Natale!”